Assessing Corporate Culture


Occasionally, a client will come back to me for career coaching after several months on the job. The all “too-perfect” role turns sour because of the corporate culture and/or internal politics.


How you can assess these factors ahead of time, they ask me? Although this is difficult as culture is intangible, I do think there are things that a potential candidate can do to get a “read” on the environment before they say “yes.”

Before I enumerate the various things to look for and ask to assess culture, let’s just step back for a minute and discuss what culture is and why is it important.


What is corporate culture? A very basic, corporate culture can be described as an organization’s “personality” and “how things are done around here.” Corporate culture is a broad term and guides how employees, think, act, feel, and behave. It is used to describe the unique personality and behavior of a company or organization and can include such elements as core values, mission, beliefs, ethics, and rules of behavior.

So why then is this important? Culture is important because it can affect you in many ways, such as the hours you work, the availability of options such as flextime and telecommuting, how people interact (or don’t) with each other, how people dress, benefits offered to employees, office layout, training, and professional development. As you can see from this list, culture affects just about everything that relates to your work.


So, since culture is so important and pervasive, how do you assess it and uncover the truths of a potential employer?


The first step toward determining whether you will be a good match for a company is to know yourself well and to know what matters most to you (your values). You have to be crystal clear about what you are seeking from this next role and/or company. Are you seeking intellectual stimulation, a family-friendly environment, a social outlet, or work-life balance?


The next step is to use the job interview (and your networking interviews) to determine if the particular employer’s culture and work environment is aligned with your core values. Working at a company whose value system does not match your own (understaffed, unethical, nonphilanthropic) can leave you feeling unfulfilled. During your networking or interviewing, be sure to ask questions of the prospective employer to see if you can get the company to reveal its corporate culture.


Here are some sample questions:


What three words or phrases would you use to describe the company/department culture?

  • Pay attention to the adjectives that are used to see if they fit with your values.


Does the company have a stated set of cultural values?

  • Often, a mission statement is a good place to start to gather insights in this area.


Can you describe the environment here?

  • Pay attention to the words used and the aspects of the work environment the employer mentions, such as camaraderie, career-development opportunities, and work-life initiatives.


What is the company’s attitude toward educational and professional development?

  • Does the company place a value on lifelong learning and advancement?


What type of employee achievements are recognized by the employer?

  • Pay attention to what the company values, and whether any special awards are given for outstanding customer service, sales, etc.


What type of sponsorships or philanthropic activities does the company participate in?

  • Does the company partner with United Way, or support programs such as Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day? Do company employees volunteer for local charities?


Another great way to assess corporate culture is to pay attention to details as you are walking around the office during your interviews. A few ideas might be:

  • How were you treated during the interviews? Were people on time?
  • Were there key phrases the interviewers used frequently that would give you a clue as to what the company values/does not value?
  • How prepared were the interviewers? Had they seen your resume?
  • Do people look happy and appear that they are having fun?
  • Do senior management members sit in cubes like everyone else or do they have fancy lush offices?
  • Does the office layout promote collaboration between departments?
  • Are people eating lunch at their desk alone, or in groups in a cafeteria?


Finding the right culture is key to your career success. Think about your impressions of the corporate culture during your networking/interviewing and capture your thoughts after the interview. Pay attention to your intuition and if you have a bad feeling, it might be best to decline further interviews and/or an offer.